Neher, Carola (1900–1942)
Neher, Carola (1900–1942)
Acclaimed German actress of the Weimar Republic who emigrated to the USSR where she was falsely accused and convicted of having engaged in anti-Soviet activities. Name variations: Karoline Josefovna Henschke. Born Karoline Neher in Munich, Germany, on November 2, 1900; died of typhus in the Sol-Ilezk transit camp, near Orenburg, USSR, on June 26, 1942; daughter of Josef Neher and Katerina Ziegler Neher; married Alfred Henschke, an expressionist author known as Klabund, in 1925; married Anatol Becker; children: son Georg Anatol Becker.
Closely associated with the plays of Klabund and Bertolt Brecht, Carola Neher was one of the most talented and popular actresses to perform during Germany's ill-fated experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic. In another time, she might well have lived to a ripe old age, rich in fame and adulation; instead, seeking refuge from Nazism, she spent the last six years of her short life wrongly imprisoned in Stalin's Soviet Union.
Born Karoline Neher in Munich in 1900, she grew up in a lively, artistic family. Her father Josef, whom her mother Katerina had married in 1899 as a widow with two children, performed with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. He spent considerable time with Carola and his other children, all of whom inherited a love of music. Katerina helped support her growing family by running a tavern (Weinstube) attached to their home that became a favorite meeting place for Munich's musicians and artists. Fascinated by the tavern's guests, Carola often imitated them, to the amusement of her siblings and
occasional annoyance of her mother. Nonetheless, Katerina soon became convinced that her outgoing daughter would one day become "a great artist."
By the time Neher entered her teens, family tensions were increasing. Her father's love of wine now revealed itself as alcoholism. Although he declared Carola to be his favorite daughter, they had strong, independent personalities which often clashed. He recognized her musical talents (she played the piano) but decided that after her graduation from commercial high school she should become a schoolteacher. Carola, however, had other thoughts, and in June 1917 she began working at Munich's Dresdner Bank, where she remained until October 1919. This was a time of radical change. Neher lived through the unexpected defeat of the German Reich, the end of the Wittelsbach monarchy in Bavaria, the proclamation of a Soviet Republic (which was quickly suppressed in a bloody White Terror), and the profound national humiliation represented by the "dictated" Treaty of Versailles. In 1919, an unknown war veteran named Adolf Hitler returned to Munich, where he had lived before the war, and joined an obscure political sect, the German Workers Party, which he would soon transform into a mass movement calling itself the Nazi Party. Although the revolutionary upheavals that began in 1917 would affect the course of Neher's life, for her the most important event took place within her family in 1919, when her father died from the ravages of alcoholism.
Around this time, Neher was drawn to acting. She began appearing on stage in Munich and was soon dancing on stage in Baden-Baden. By 1922, she was regularly employed at Munich's prestigious Kammerspiele. Soon after, she met the young playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), and the two became lovers. Through Brecht's influence, she got a role in the motion picture Mysterien eines Frisiersalons (Mysteries of a Barber Shop), which starred comedian Karl Valentin. Her career now thriving, Neher could be seen regularly on stage in several German cities, including Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), where she secured a contract at the Vereinigtes Theater.
In 1925, Neher married the expressionist author Klabund. Born Alfred Henschke in 1891, Klabund had been diagnosed as being tubercular in 1906, almost two decades before his marriage to Neher, and spent the rest of his life in and out of sanatoria; by the time Neher met him, he had become for Weimar intellectuals the epitome of the doomed poet. Neher and Klabund had an unconventional marriage and were often separated for long periods as each pursued their own goals.
Through men such as Brecht and Klabund, Neher became increasingly enmeshed in the subculture of radical ideas and politics. Brecht was a Marxist and sympathized with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), whereas Klabund's political beliefs, while also radical, were less ideologically doctrinaire. (After having first enthusiastically supported the German cause in World War I, Klabund became disillusioned and turned vehemently against it in 1917. In 1919, after the collapse of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, he was briefly imprisoned in Munich by the forces of the counter-revolution.) Neher, who was not a systematic political thinker, was attracted to men like Brecht and Klabund for their strong personalities and the ideals they espoused. Disgusted with the mediocrity of republican politics, she felt at home in Weimar Germany's leftist circles where artists and intellectuals sympathized with the new world which they were convinced was embodied by the KPD and the Soviet Union.
During her brief marriage to Klabund, Neher became one of the best-known actresses on the German stage. Among many other roles, she appeared in several of her husband's stage works, including the premiere performances in 1925 of his Der Kreidekreis (The Chalk Circle), in which she took the role of Haitang. (Brecht later borrowed much from this play when he wrote his own Caucasian Chalk Circle.) In April 1926, she starred in the premiere of Klabund's Brennende Erde (Burning Earth) in Frankfurt am Main. By the end of that year, having been discovered by influential director Viktor Barnowsky, Neher was starring in several Berlin theaters, and she succeeded in winning over even Berlin's most jaded critics. Stephan Grossmann noted that her mere appearance served to produce "mass intoxication in the theater." Alfred Polgar described her as "young, pretty, charming, and cute, with a cat's face marked by an impudent little nose and round, lively eyes." With her earthy persona, she could bring "the voice of the street" to virtually any stage.
In 1927, Neher starred in her husband's play XYZ when it premiered at Vienna's prestigious Burgtheater. The same year, she played Cleopatra in George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra at the Burgtheater. In the summer of 1928, she began rehearsing the role of Polly Peachum for the premiere performance of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) by Brecht and Kurt Weill. In mid-August, however, Neher bowed out and left Berlin to be with her husband when he died at a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland.
It was customary for Brecht to write the parts in his plays with specific actors in mind, and the role of Polly in Die Dreigroschenoper had been crafted to Carola Neher. It was therefore not surprising when she was chosen to play Polly in the stage revival of 1929, as well as in the film version directed by G.W. Pabst. The sardonic anti-bourgeois tone of the Brecht-Weill work delighted the radical Weimar intelligentsia while infuriating conservatives, particularly the rising Nazi movement. The motion picture, which has become a cinema classic, boasted of a number of stars in addition to Neher, including Valeska Gert, Lotte Lenya , and Ernst Busch. The Berlin premiere, on February 19, 1931, was a great success. But a week later in Nuremberg, a Nazi stronghold, the film's performance was marred by disturbances, including the launching of stink bombs and firecrackers, as well as physical attacks on members of the audience.
Among Neher's other successes were the roles of Eliza in Shaw's Pygmalion (Deutsches Theater, Berlin, 1928) and Magdalena in Walter Hasenclever's Ehen werden im Himmel geschlossen (Marriages are Made in Heaven). Not all of her roles, however, were successful. In September 1929, she appeared at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Happy End, a collaborative effort between Dorothy Lane (Elisabeth Hauptmann ), Brecht, and Weill—which the press unanimously scorned. Despite the brilliant cast, with Neher in the star role of Salvation Army member Lilian Holiday, and other talented actors of the day including Helene Weigel , Kurt Gerron and Peter Lorre, the weakly constructed comedy failed to make an impression on either critics or audience, and the production closed after only a few days.
Much more successful vehicles for Neher's talents included the 1930 review by Friedrich Hollaender, Ich tanze um die Welt mit dir (I'll Dance Around the World with You), and the role of Marianne in Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth's Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (Tales from the Vienna Woods), which premiered in Berlin in 1931. Critical response to the latter, surrealistic work was enthusiastic, with influential critic Polgar describing Neher simply as "this madonna from Vienna's eighth district." In April 1932, Neher's participation in a Berlin Radio broadcast of excerpts from seven scenes of Brecht's Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (St. Joan of the Stockyards) marked another artistic milestone in her career. The press praised the broadcast—in which Neher worked in the same recording studio with Weigel, Busch, Lorre, and Fritz Kortner—as a brilliant presentation of a major play. This broadcast would be Neher's last major appearance before the German public.
By the end of 1932, major changes were to take place in her private life. During a stormy affair with the conductor Hermann Scherchen, she became pregnant and suffered a miscarriage, and it was Neher who broke off the relationship. While attending classes at Berlin's Marxist Workers' School, she met and fell in love with Anatol Becker, an ethnic German engineer from Bessarabia, a province of Rumania. As a committed Communist and ardent member of the KPD, Becker impressed Neher, who had grown increasingly critical of the superficial "parlor pinks" in her circle who seemed merely to mouth leftist clichés. Although many close to her did not feel that Carola and Anatol were a natural pair, her infatuation with him continued, and in 1932 she surprised, even shocked, her family and friends with their decision to marry.
In early 1933, Neher planned to participate in a Berlin stage presentation of Brecht's Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe, but Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of the German Reich on January 30, 1933. Within weeks, the Reichstag fire (most likely set by the Nazis) gave Hitler's minions a pretext to unleash an anti-Marxist and anti-democratic reign of terror that allowed his National Socialists to turn Germany into a totalitarian Third Reich. Because he was an active Communist, Becker's life was at risk in a Germany full of newly established concentration camps. He and Neher escaped to the relative safety of Prague, where many anti-Nazi émigrés found refuge in the first stage of the dictatorship. Prague was sympathetic to the plight of anti-fascist intellectuals, and at first it appeared that Becker and Neher would remain there. By the autumn of 1933, she was appearing as a guest artist in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew on the stage of Prague's New German Theater. The following year, however, she accompanied her husband when he decided to relocate to the Soviet Union.
They moved to Moscow, where overcrowding, poor food, and compromises in other basics made daily life a trial. Believing that he could contribute to the building of Communism, Anatol regarded his work as an engineer in a Moscow factory as a worthwhile investment of his skills and energy. Unlike her husband, who had been raised in poor Rumania and adjusted easily to Soviet conditions, Neher found adaptation to life there very difficult after living in relative luxury in Berlin. Having arrived not as a refugee actress but as the wife of a Communist engineer, she also found it challenging to find a place in the Moscow theater scene. Eventually, she obtained a suitable position as a director's assistant at the film unit of Mezhrabpom (the International Workers' Relief). Learning the Russian language and adapting to a new cultural tradition also proved to be difficult. By 1935, however, she was starting to settle down into a routine of professional activities. Her scheduled work included giving drama lessons to members of the Deutsches Theater Kolonne Links (German Theater Column Left), a group of émigré German-speaking actors led by Gustav von Wangenheim. Neher also made a number of special appearances at Moscow's Club for Foreign Workers. These included evenings dedicated to the words and music of Brecht and Weill, to the revolutionary music of Hanns Eisler, and to the verse and music of Erich Mühsam, a leftist poet who had been murdered in a Nazi concentration camp in 1934. During this period, Neher also made broadcasts to Germany over Moscow Radio and wrote articles on drama for the German-language newspaper Deutsche Zentral-Zeitung.
In honor of Brecht during his visit in May 1935 to the Soviet capital, Neher and fellow émigré actor Alexander Granach presented an evening of Brecht's songs and dramatic recitations. Brecht was happy to see his old flame again but was concerned that Neher had not found work equal to her talents; he also noted in a letter to Helene Weigel that she had become "rather stout and very nervous."
Although life was hard in Moscow, the Soviet Union was working to industrialize and under Joseph Stalin gave the appearance of having become an anti-fascist bulwark. All appearances of even partial normality in the Soviet Union, however, would prove to be deceptive. While her husband worked long hours as an engineer to increase Soviet industrial production, Neher worked to improve the professional level of the émigré artists whom she hoped might one day—under the direction of such artists as Wangenheim, Erwin Piscator, and possibly herself—create a viable German-language theater in the Soviet Union. One such plan (which did not come to fruition) was to create a German theater in the city of Engels, situated in the German Volga Republic, of which Neher was expected to be one of the star performers. These hopes were put on hold when in December 1934 she became the mother of a son, Georg Anatol Becker.
Carola Neher's happiness was to be short-lived. Anatol was arrested in April 1936 on charges of being part of a Trotskyite group that planned to assassinate Stalin and others in Red Square during the May Day celebrations. On June 25, 1936, "Karoline Josefovna Henschke" was also arrested in Moscow by the dreaded secret police, the NKVD. She had been denounced by fellow actor Gustav von Wangenheim. Anatol and Carola never saw one another again. Neither parent would ever see their son again, either; he was placed in a state orphanage when his mother was taken into custody. Years later, in the 1990s, historians would reconstruct Neher's last years in the USSR by using documents from the KGB Archives. Absurdly accused of espionage, Anatol Becker was shot in 1937. In an equally absurd miscarriage of Soviet justice, Neher was accused of being a messenger for the "Prague Trotskyite Center" led by one Erich Wollenberg, as well as having falsely claimed to be a KPD member. Believing herself incapable of enduring more torture as a prisoner in Moscow's infamous Lubianka prison, a desperate Neher made an unsuccessful suicide attempt, inflicting superficial cuts on her wrist. On July 16, 1937, the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR sentenced her to ten years at hard labor. She was taken to Kazan penitentiary to serve out her sentence.
By 1937, rumors about her situation prompted Brecht to take action on Neher's behalf. He turned to the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, whose books supporting the purges had made him very much persona grata with the Soviet regime and who had been able to secure the release of Neher's colleague Alexander Granach from a Soviet prison. In a May 1937 letter to Feuchtwanger, Brecht asked him if he could "do something about Neher."
She is said to have been jailed in Moscow, I don't know why, but I really can't think of her as a danger to the survival of the Soviet Union. Maybe some sort of love trouble. In any case she is not a worthless person, but I doubt if they know it in the USSR, she hasn't had a real chance to show what she could do. … All my own questions have gone unanswered and that worries me.
Two more letters from Brecht to Feuchtwanger are a barometer of the playwright's increasing concern about the actress. In June 1937, he wrote:
Do you think you might approach Stalin's secretary for information about Neher? In view of the only too well justified countermeasures against Goebbels' networks in the USSR, a mistake is always possible. … If Neher has actually been involved in treasonable machinations, there's nothing we can do to help her, but perhaps by calling attention to her great talents as an artist, one might get them to speed up proceedings and give her case special attention (which in view of her reputation … would be a good thing for the Soviet Union).
Neher's fate came up once more in a letter dated late November 1937 in which Brecht asked Feuchtwanger almost in desperation, "What really can we do for poor CN?" Brecht had hoped Feuchtwanger might work a similar miracle for Neher as he had for Granach, but this was not to be. Resigned but still shaken, Brecht wrote a poem about Neher, in which he recalled: "The letters I wrote to you/ Remained unanswered. The friends I asked to assist you/ Are silent. I can do nothing for you."
Despite his concern about Neher's fate, Brecht said nothing publicly. Over the next two decades, until his death in East Berlin, he made a number of behind-the-scenes attempts to discover more information on what had happened to her. As late as 1952 and 1955, when Brecht had become the GDR's cultural superstar, his requests for information about Neher from high Soviet officials brought no answers. While Neher was still alive and imprisoned, anti-Stalinist German émigrés aware of her fate singled out Brecht for harsh criticism for having remained silent. In October 1938, writing in the Parisbased German Trotskyite journal Unser Wort (Our Word), Walter Held challenged Brecht in an open letter: "You, Herr Brecht, knew Carola Neher. You know that she is neither a terrorist nor a spy, but rather was a brave human being and a great artist. Why do you remain silent? Is it because Stalin finances your publication Das Wort (The Word)—this, the least truthful, most depraved publication ever put out by German intellectuals?" Brecht never responded to this harsh indictment of his silence. But the boldness of Held's attack on Stalinism proved to be catastrophic for Held and his family. In 1940, while fleeing from the Nazis in a desperate attempt to emigrate to the United States, Held and his family had no choice but to cross the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian Express in order to reach a Pacific port and a waiting ship. NKVD agents removed him and his entire family from the train and killed them.
We know about Carola Neher's years in Soviet prisons and labor camps from the memoirs of three survivors of these institutions: Evgenia Ginzburg, Margarete Buber-Neumann , and Hilde Duty . All three women were impressed by the dignity and courage Neher exhibited. In the struggle to retain her own humanity, and to assist her fellow prisoners in their efforts to hold on to theirs, Neher never surrendered. In 1940, she was transferred to Moscow's Butyrki prison. Despite her four years of imprisonment, fellow prisoner Ginzburg still saw in her "a face of unusually tender beauty and charm." "With the deft movement of an actress used to playing in adventure films," Neher skillfully concealed in her luxuriant blonde hair a pair of earrings, a present from her husband whom she believed to be dead, from the watchful eyes of the female wardens.
She had been taken to Butyrki to be prepared for transfer to Nazi Germany. In the case of Margarete Buber-Neumann such a transfer did in fact take place, but Neher would never again see Germany or life as a free woman. On April 16, 1940, German officials informed the Soviets that they had decided not to accept Carola Neher for repatriation to Germany. The reasons for this remain unclear, but perhaps it was for the bureaucratic reason that Neher had been stripped of her German citizenship in November 1934 and thus was no longer subject to the authority of the Third Reich.
Soon after this, an officer of the NKVD offered to release Neher if she agreed to do espionage work for his organization. She refused. After ten days—which included several days in a frigid cell with no food or blankets, followed by excellent rations and a luxurious goose-down pillow—the officer returned to make the same offer. Again Neher refused. She then was transferred from Butyrki to still another prison in the town of Orel. The last of Neher's letters to survive was written in the Orel prison. Dated March 10, 1941, it is addressed to the children's home where her son, then age six, was living:
The undersigned is the mother of the German child Becker, Georg Anatolevich, born 1934 in Moscow. … Since I have not heard any thing for one and a half years, I would like to ask you to answer the following questions: How is my son developing, both emotionally and physically? How is his health? … Is it possible that he still remembers his mother? Might I possibly request a recent photograph of him? … Is he musically inclined? Has he learned to draw, and if so, could you possibly send me one of his drawings? … I look forward impatiently to receiving your response. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of the kindnesses you can do for my beloved child. … Please excuse the mistakes in this letter: I have not mastered the Russian language.
The letter remained unanswered.
During her six years of imprisonment, Neher received only two or three letters providing her with information about her son. One of these, from a kind (and courageous) nursery school worker, informed her that the little boy was happy and doing well, was in good health, and loved to dance. Neher treasured the one photograph of her son that had been sent her in prison, which showed him with a teddy bear under his arm. She would never learn that at age six he was adopted by an abusive Russian woman. Eventually he would live in Odessa, completely ignorant of the identity of his mother and father until, by accident in the 1960s, he discovered the secret of his parents' demise. Georg Becker did not see photographs of his parents until 1972. After establishing contact with his mother's family in Munich, in 1975 he emigrated to West Germany, where he became a successful teacher at a Bavarian music conservatory.
In Neher's last year of life, the start of Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 meant the systematic bombing by the Luftwaffe of the city of Orel. For several days, the inmates of Orel's prison endured the terrifying attack without protective shelter. In August 1941, as German troops rapidly moved across the steppes, Neher and the other Orel prisoners were released so they could be evacuated, the final destination being Siberia. They would spend the winter of 1941–42 in the Ural transit camp of Sol-Ilezk, situated south of Orenburg in a desolate region bordering on Kazakhstan. Inadequate living conditions led to a typhus epidemic among all of the prisoners. The only German woman prisoner to survive Sol-Ilezk, Hilde Duty, wrote of Neher's last days: "We helped one another as best we could. It was the fifth day of her illness, and they took Carola to what passed as our sick bay. Two days later—on June 26, 1942—one of our fellow prisoners returned from there to report, 'Carola has found deliverance' (Carola ist erlöst). We never saw her again." A Russian prisoner reported that Neher's last words to her comrades had been a command, to "live long lives." Entered on her card in the camp file was only one word, "with-drawn," and the date, with no other details, not even the fact of death (or a cause of death). The location of her grave is unknown, as is true for virtually all the victims of Stalinist terror.
As part of the process of de-Stalinization, Carola Neher's case was reviewed by Soviet judicial authorities in the late 1950s. Her guilty sentence of 1937 became legally null and void, she was declared to be innocent of all charges, and in January 1959 she was declared to be posthumously rehabilitated. This new verdict of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR was publicly announced on August 13, 1959.
Although Neher's fate was well known in West Germany, having been written about in the memoirs of Margarete Buber-Neumann and in several biographical studies, the subject remained virtually taboo in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where the reputations of KPD leaders Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht—men who had survived Stalinist purges and denunciations—had to be protected. As damning archival documents show, these men had failed to intervene on behalf of Neher and many other innocent German émigrés in the Soviet Union. With the demise of the GDR in 1990, all Germans had the freedom to learn what had happened to one of Weimar Germany's most popular stars. In 1992, a street was named in her honor in the Hellersdorf section of Berlin. Previously known as Ernst Kramer Strasse, it had been a memorial to a former GDR minister of transportation. Carola Neher Strasse is a reminder of the loss that was suffered when Neher died before she could give the world the full measure of her talent.
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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
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